Research at the Institute for Exposomic Research is guided in large part by community concerns, with a focus on Black, Indigenous & people of color historically marginalized by environmental injustices and health inequities. Solutions to these injustices require a Research to Action approach that pairs scientists with residents and advocates to not only empower, but “INpower” communities to effect change. Instead of assuming that researchers are there to provide power or to “save” residents facing environmental injustices, INpowerment is an equitable approach that seeks to create a research process that activates the power communities already have within themselves. INpowerment gives agency back to residents so that they can engage in the process of creating safe and healthy living conditions.
Exemplary of this approach is a 2023 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) funded project called “Studying Air Pollution-Health-Climate Interactions for People of Color in Southeast Queens, NY: A Community-Based Project.” Researchers will engage southeast Queens residents in the measurements of key air pollutants through community-based participatory research (CBPR), increasing their understanding of climatic factors and air pollution impacts on health, and empowering them to use such knowledge to inform policy on alleviating climate impacts and sustaining good health. Dawn Roberts-Semple, PhD, MPhil, at York College/The City University of New York serves as the Principal Investigator. Luz Guel, Director of Community Engagement and Environmental Justice at the Mount Sinai Center on Health and Environment Across the LifeSpan (HEALS) will serve as the Project Director and ensure that community-centered strategies inform the research and partnership process.
The newly EPA-funded project builds on an earlier CBPR pilot project funded through HEALS.
Waste transfer station in Jamaica, Queens
Jamaica, Queens is a designated Environmental Justice community that continues to be affected by disproportionate environmental exposures that impact the health of residents. Environmental Justice communities are low-income and/or areas with predominantly people of color that are vulnerable to potential environmental injustices due to factors including history of systemic racism and inequitable resource distribution. In the late 1990s, the closure of the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island resulted in the placement of two private waste transfer stations that process and export garbage to out-of-state landfills in a residential area of Jamaica. Individuals who live near the two waste transfer stations experience foul odors, diesel exhaust, waste blow off and leachate, noise, and disruption from these facilities and trucks on a daily basis. In summer, the stench emanating from these waste transfer stations is so unbearable that residents are unable to use their backyards or open their windows.
To address the environmental impacts of the waste transfer stations on health and quality of life of neighboring residents, a multi-disciplinary team was assembled. The project brings together air quality research scientists and clinicians from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and The City University of New York, legal experts from the CUNY Center for Urban Reform, representatives from local community boards and advocacy groups, and high school students.
This project builds capacity of frontline communities and their residents by providing them with training to lead research and utilize crowd-sourcing tools to document odor concerns and PM2.5 measurements within a one-mile radius of the stations. Importantly, through this community science approach, residents are INpowered to use findings to recommend innovative modifications that promote the use of best practices in the facilities’ siting, design, and operation. This strategy serves as a model for how scientists at Icahn Mount Sinai can work with residents to improve health and quality of life in neighborhoods affected by environmental injustices.